New law lets teens delete digital skeletons

Remember that dance-party photo you regretted posting online? How about the time you over-shared your feelings about your ex or made that comment about Barack Obama?

All forever etched in the annals of the Internet.

Well, maybe not – at least if you’re under 18.

Legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday will require Web companies, starting in 2015, to remove online activity – whether it be scandalous or simply embarrassing – should a minor request it.

The thinking, say supporters of the new “eraser” law, is that boys will be boys (and girls, well, girls) and that the indiscretions of youth shouldn’t haunt them down the road.

“Kids so often self-reveal before they self-reflect,” said James Steyer, founder of San Francisco’s Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group that advocated for the law. “Mistakes can stay with teens for life, and their digital footprint can follow them wherever they go.”

The bill, authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, pushes lawmakers deeper into the dicey debate over online privacy. As social media soars in popularity and Web companies cull more and more information about people’s lives, questions continue to be raised about what Internet firms should and should not be doing with the data.

California already allows certain people, such as victims of domestic violence, to get information struck from the online record. And a pioneering 2003 state law requires companies to let visitors to their websites know what information they’re collecting – and who they’re sharing it with.

A small victory

A recently introduced amendment to that law, which is now in the hands of the governor, would force these companies to state whether they honor do-not-track requests that users make in their Internet browsers.

If the eraser law is a win for online privacy, it’s a small one. The legislation has its limitations: Teens won’t have absolute certainty that mom and dad – or college admissions officers or future employers – won’t see their photo at a keg party, even if they ask for the photo to be removed.

If the underage drinking picture is posted by someone else, for example, it’s not covered by the law. If the image is copied and posted to another Web site, that would not be covered.

Web companies also are not required to scrub their servers clean of personal data, just remove the requested item from public viewing. Under the law, sites can offer ways for users to make the redaction directly, or provide an avenue for users to request one.

Marketing restrictions

Many companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, already allow users to remove their posts.

An additional provision of the new law bars companies from marketing products that are illegal for minors – such as alcohol, cigarettes and firearms – on pages customized for a minor who has logged in. Web companies also are not allowed to provide identifying information on minors to vendors of these products.

Opponents of Steinberg’s legislation don’t take issue with the new law’s intent – to protect children. But they say it’s not a productive solution.

The Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., which works for freedom on the Internet, said burdensome restrictions could deter Web companies from creating content for children and even prompt sites to ban minors entirely.

Another potential problem, opponents say, is that California will have a different policy than other states, creating a patchwork of regulation that could be difficult for the industry to navigate.

Similar legislation on children’s online privacy has been put forth at the federal level but has failed to gain traction.

Steinberg praised the governor’s approval of the law Monday as “groundbreaking protection” for kids.

OK with these teens

Outside San Francisco’s Galileo High School, many students said the law sounded like a good idea. They said they might appreciate a chance to make a fresh start, digitally speaking, after they turn 18.

“As a youth, you make a bunch of mistakes,” said Alicia Cabral, 17. “If you put it on the Internet, it follows you everywhere.”

Her friend, 15-year-old Diana Cortez, added that caution is still in order.

Even if you make sure not to post photos of yourself, you can’t stop your friends from doing so, she said. “If you use drugs and there are pictures of you doing that and you apply for a job, you won’t get hired.”

Kurtis Alexander and Vivian Ho are San Francisco Chronicle staff writes. E-mail: kalexander@sfchronicle.com, vho@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @kurtisalexander, @VivianHo

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